Despite differences, Turkey and Iran find room to co-operate
In the face of Iran's international isolation, Turkey and Iran see an incentive to work together.
By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 09/01/12
Reliant upon Iran for 20% of its natural gas and nearly a third of its oil imports, Turkey is seeking to reduce tensions by increasing trade and engaging more broadly on a host of issues that concern both countries.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) warned his Iranian hosts to avoid steps that could lead to sectarian polarisation in the Middle East. [Reuters]
"One of the main reasons for co-operation is because Iran is resource rich and Turkey's growing economy needs energy," Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, tells SES Türkiye.
For Turkey, Iran is a vital conduit for its trade with the Central Asian republics and an important partner in the struggle with Kurdish separatism.
For Tehran, Ankara is an important buyer of its exported energy and provides a political link with Europeans and Americans.
"Iran seems to rely on co-operation with Turkey to lessen its international and regional isolation," Tarik Oguzlu, an assistant professor at Bilkent University, told SES Türkiye.
Despite these strong incentives to co-operate, the two sides have sparred in the past for influence in the post-Soviet republics in Central Asia and, fundamentally, have different visions for the future of the Middle East.
While both sides were caught flat-footed by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, they have since worked to give direction to the new political environment in the region.
However, both countries find themselves advocating very different styles of government and often support different actors. With the exception of Syria, Iran sees the movements through the lens of the Islamic revolution, and supports the ascendance of Islamic political parties.
Turkey, on the other hand, has championed the compatibility of secularism with an Islamic identity as the better model for the region's nascent democratic movements, and has offered to provide political and economic support.
Given this divergence, Nader believes that the "the relationship [between Iran and Turkey] was always facing fundamental obstacles."
Despite this, the two sides have a strong incentive to continue their pragmatic co-operation and avoid overt tension -- something Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to achieve with his two-day visit to Iran late last week.
In an interview with the Anatolian News Agency before departing for diplomatic talks in Tehran, Davutoglu warned that unnamed actors are intent on starting a sectarian "Cold War" in the Middle East, something he said Turkey is determined to prevent.
Iran and Turkey have deep and historical relations, Davutoglu said, adding that even if the two countries sometimes have differences of opinion, they have a diplomatic tradition of solving issues through dialogue.
"At a time when Turkey and Iran are at the centre of these fast paced developments, it's of the utmost importance that Turkey and Iran have such comprehensive consultations," he said.
In addition to Syria, political instability and rising Shi'a-Sunni divisions in Iraq were on the agenda during Davutoglu's visit. In contrast to Iran, which has supported Shiites, Turkey has played a constructive role maintaining relations with all ethnic-sectarian groups in Iraq.
To calm Iran, Ankara reiterated its long standing vow to not allow Turkish soil to be used as a staging point for an attack against Iran, and that the soon to be installed NATO missile defence radar is not directed at any nation state.
"Turkey does not want a strike on Iran that would lead to regional turmoil," Kadir Ustun, research director at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), explains.
"There is a realisation that there will have to be tensions and co-operation simultaneously, but Turkey would prefer less tension and more co-operation," Ustun adds.
But still, mounting tensions in the Gulf has heightened concern for regional conflict, adding new uncertainty to an already explosive situation in the entire Middle East.
This dangerous conjuncture of events prompted Davutoglu to warn that sectarian and regional polarisation would lead to "suicide" for the entire region that would have effects for decades to come.